There’s no doubt society is facing a suicide epidemic among teens.
It isn’t uncommon to log on to your social media accounts and see yet another tragic story of a teen falling victim to suicide.
Suicide is so pervasive in our culture, it even features in literary works and TV shows.
Curious teens, worried parents and concerned educators have read and watched 13 Reasons, a book turned into a Netflix series.
It created quite a controversy last year, as viewers and professionals debated whether it romanticised teen suicide or sparked a necessary conversation on the subject.
Either way, it turned the spotlight on teen suicide – a problem many of us were already aware of.
But what’s behind teen suicide? Why have we seen an increase in recent years?
Smartphones And Teen Suicide – 5 Things Parents Need To Know
New research shows the increase in teen suicide, since 2012, could be related to an increase in smartphone and social media use.
Any parent of a preteen would find it difficult, and unpleasant, to read articles about teens and suicide. Our kids are beginning to morph into young people, who are affected by hormones and stress, and trying to navigate a big and intimidating world. It’s scary to think about what this can mean.
When we are constantly bombarded by media messages, it can be hard to distinguish between real, evidence-based information and concerns, and clickbait items. Sometimes, it isn’t a case of something being of more massive concern than it was decades ago, it’s simply that it’s more visible in the media.
With regard to teen suicide, the concerns are legitimate. There is a fairly high rate of depression and anxiety among teens; this can lead to suicide.
It’s important to note, although suicide is on the rise, current rates aren’t the highest we’ve seen. Teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, any suicide is problematic. And any rise in frequency calls for awareness, research and prevention.
As parents, we can use the information to help reduce our children’s risk of experiencing anxiety and depression, or help them access appropriate treatment when necessary. Being aware of the risks associated with smartphones can help us guide our teens to use them in a healthy way.
Here are 5 things parents need to know about smartphones and mental health:
#1: Moderation And Supervision Are Key To Healthier Smartphone Use
On one hand, it might seem easier just to say no to all smartphone or social media use for teens. After all, if they don’t have the option to use them, doesn’t that eliminate the problem?
On the other hand, as a parent, you might understand your teen wants to connect and socialise with her peers.
As my kids are still preteens, I’ve simply been able to say a quick no to their requests for a smartphone. Although they’d certainly love to have one, many of their peers still connect and interact the old-fashioned way – in person. However, I’m well aware this isn’t likely to last forever.
Psychologist Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, recently published work based on current research. According to her, smartphones deserve a lot of the blame for the increase in teen suicide.
Among eighth graders, 27% of those frequently using social media showed signs of depression, compared with 12% of those who spent more time interacting with their community in person. Based on Twenge’s cited research, there’s more than double the risk of exhibiting depressive behaviour with regular smartphone use.
A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens showed three out of four had iPhones. Chances are we aren’t going to see a drastic reduction in the number of teens using smartphones. However, the benefit of research is it can help us make informed decisions based on that reality.
If there are high suicide rates among young teens, perhaps waiting a couple of years to introduce smartphones could reduce their effect? Perhaps limiting the number of hours per day teens can use their phones will lessen the risks?
And, perhaps most importantly, we should ensure smartphone use doesn’t replace extracurricular activities and opportunities to be out in the community connecting with others face to face.
#2: Real Human Connection Is Important
When we were teens, text messaging, email and instant messaging were only beginning to affect our lives. We had to be at home and in front of a PC to interact with our peers online. Many of us shared a computer with the family, which reduced the amount of time we could spend online.
Even after I had my own cell phone, text messaging was limited. And there wasn’t much Internet access (unless you paid a large fee).
Gen X teens and even millennial teens went out more. When a friend or sibling had a driver’s licence, we finally felt the taste of freedom we had so longed for. Of course, along with that came risks. Car accidents and inappropriate teen behaviour (smoking, alcohol, etc.) were common risks many teens took in the 1990s and early 2000s.
You might be surprised to know today there are lower rates of teen sexual activity, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and fewer car accidents involving teens. While these statistics are encouraging, they appear to come with new risks.
Teens aren’t going out as much as in previous decades. They’re also working less and have less assigned homework. Many parents encourage them to study more rather than earn money from part-time work.
What does this mean?
It means in their free time many teens are glued to their phones, on social media.
Twenge says, “Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phones. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends… They are on their phones, in their rooms, alone and often distressed”.
Education is important, but perhaps encouraging our teens to spend more time at a part-time job, in volunteering or in extracurriculars could protect them from isolation?
#3: Teens Are Subjected To Constant Comparison And Feeling Left Out
Even as adults, we can fall into the social media comparison trap. But during our teen years, our comparisons could only go so far. Sure, there were magazines but, on some level, we knew those models were just that – models.
Perhaps there were a few fellow students we admired or were jealous of, but we only had so many opportunities to compare ourselves to them. And now, although social media comparisons exist, we’re usually sufficiently confident and mature to able to talk ourselves out of feeling too down when we see our other parents’ or professionals' ‘perfect’ posts on social media.
For today’s teens, however, social media comparisons can be a constant during some of the most uncertain and vulnerable years of their lives.
Many of us felt the sting of being left out of a big party, but once the talk blew over it was essentially the end of the story. For today’s teens, social media posts feed into that feeling of being excluded. Not only are they reminded they were left out, they will often see several posts about it.
Sometimes teens are intentionally left out, but there are also other typical situations. For example, a parent might allow only one friend to come over, or to tag along to the movies. In past generations you might hear about it briefly or, even more likely, you’d never find out.
Now, a teen might sit at home, reading several posts about one-on-one hang outs, and feel completely left out despite their friends having no ill intentions.
“Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it” says Twenge.
The reality is most of us won’t keep our children off social media forever, or limit their time completely. We can’t totally shield them from feeling left out. However, if we encourage more face to face interaction, more activities, and limit social media time, we might be able to protect them from constant comparisons and feeling excluded.
#4: Cyberbullying Is A Real Problem
Bullying has existed forever. What’s unique to this generation, however, is the ability to torment someone constantly, with little effort. Victims of bullies aren’t safe even when walking into their own bedrooms.
While cyberbullying affects both boys and girls, the nature of the bullying tends to vary. Boys tend to carry out their bullying physically. For girls, bullying is often about ostracising, undermining confidence, and interfering with social status.
Social media allows bullies to target their victims around the clock – sabotaging their social status, and making sure they feel left out and totally lacking in confidence.
There’s not necessarily an easy fix for this problem. Many social media companies claim they try to raise awareness and reduce the problem. Parents can and should talk to their children about it, to make sure they’re not bullying, and to help them in situations where they’re victims of bullying.
As well as cyberbullying, there is targeted ad placement; this could be adding fuel to the fire.
Twenge writes: “A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state, based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint ‘moments when young people need a confidence boost.’ Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers ‘tools to target people based on their emotional state’ ”.
When our teens are online, their mental wellness is constantly at stake – more so than in many other situations.
#5: There’s An Undeniable Link Between Smartphones And Mental Health
You might acknowledge the suicide risk, but you might wonder whether is it high enough to be concerned about your own child’s smartphone use?
Really, any suicide among teens is of major concern. Thankfully, it isn’t at peak levels, but it has been on the rise and it’s important we are aware of that. As a society, we need to do more to ensure the mental wellness of our children.
Even if your child isn’t likely to commit suicide, she might still be at risk of suffering from depression and anxiety. Even in their mildest forms, they can greatly affect quality of life.
Twenge says “The correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phones”.
From 2012 to 2015, boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21%. Among girls, the rate of depressive symptoms increased by 50% – more than twice as much. Even more alarming, three times as many 12-14 year old girls killed themselves in 2015, compared with 2007.
Teens who spent at least three hours on some type of device were significantly more likely to exhibit suicidal tendencies, such as researching ways to kill themselves or developing a suicide plan.
Many teens go to bed looking at their phones; they sleep with or near them, and check them first thing in the morning (as do many adults). There’s a strong correlation between evening and bedtime smartphone use and sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation also increases the risk of depression.
The data is in: teen smartphone use has significant risks.
What Does All Of This Mean For Parents?
It’s 2018, we’re deep into technology. Chances are, we’re not going to see a drastic drop in smartphone use.
However, it is vital we take an active and informed role in how our children utilise technology.
There’s no doubt smartphones have advantages, and social media has plenty of perks. But we need to be fully aware of the risks – especially the risks for our children whose brains are still developing.
Wondering if it’s really possible to limit your children’s screen time?
Be sure to read What Happened When I Banned My Kids From Television & Other Screens for an idea of how to reduce screen viewing.